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How SD Tech Entrepreneurs Plan to Pay It Forward

At a casual poker game last week, a lot of the restless entrepreneurs trying to make the local startup scene stronger signed a pledge to invest in San Diego companies when they make it big.

San Diego’s tech startup community is having some growing pains. Namely, once companies reach a certain point, they often leave town because of a lack of local talent, funding, mentoring – or all three.

A group of local entrepreneurs is looking to change that.

At a casual poker game last week, a lot of the restless entrepreneurs trying to make the startup scene stronger signed a pledge to invest in San Diego companies when they make it big.

The local tech industry’s pay-it-forward promise is simple. It’s called the San Diego Tech Founders Pledge, and came about after Kelly Abbott, CEO of Realtidbits, which built the commenting system for Voice of San Diego and other websites, announced the idea and passed a sheet of paper around the room.

“I will invest 10 percent of my earnings from my successful San Diego company’s exit back into another San Diego startup,” the pledge reads.

That’s the whole thing.

Twenty-six entrepreneurs signed out of the 30-some who were there.

Melani Gordon, founder of Bevato and TapHunter, which uses mobile technology to help bars and restaurants connect with customers, was one of the pledge signees at Poker 2.0, the regular meet-up hosted by Embarke.

She said things have started to come together for San Diego’s tech scene in the last six months, but that it still needs to do a better job retaining programmers and engineers from local universities that are leaving for other cities. She said the downtown area needs to continue to evolve into a home for startups as well.

“What’s happening in the 92101 ZIP code in San Diego is pushing things forward,” she said. “We need a stronger concentration of startups.”

Rares Saftoiu, whose company Shopventory does inventory for mobile sales products, said the company he started this year went to Boulder, Colo., this summer when it was accepted into a coveted accelerator program there that offered intense mentoring and training, as well as $100,000 to get moving.

San Diego’s tech scene could go a long way with something similar, he said.

“There’s no equivalent here,” he said. “The accelerators that are here are doing a good job, but they’re not as intense, and the biggest point is, the mentor network isn’t quite as strong in San Diego.”

He said forming something along those lines, capable of passing money onto its companies, would be a worthwhile goal to form as a result of the new pledge.

That’s been a recurring issue within the tech community recently. Similar frustrations gained attention from a widely circulated memo from local startup aficionado Brant Cooper, known as “Brant’s rant,” and a New York Times blog post written by Adriana Herrera, whose startup operates out of both San Diego and Santa Monica.

That gap prompted one serial entrepreneur, Darrius Thompson, to launch a mentoring program earlier this year.

But the entrepreneurs’ pledge specifically promises one thing: money. Companies that score a big win will turn around and put money back into another local company. Others who signed the pledge said that alone addresses the two biggest issues for startups in San Diego: there’s not enough access to funding, and there aren’t enough companies located here.

Russ Hall is founder of GROWconnections, a company that helps entrepreneurs build and expand their professional network. He’s also worked with Tech Coast Angels, which provides funding for early stage companies.

“We have 106 members in San Diego, 300 along the coast, and I’d like to see a zero added to that,” he said.

Nate Ritter, with Perfect Space Inc., a web application developer, said growing the tech cluster all comes back to making more money available to startups and would-be startups.

Finding qualified employees is a big issue too, but that alone would be solved with more funding, he said.

“Every time a company gets funded here, they have to move because their investors say so. It would be great if we had the type of culture where you could stay, grow, and then a new company could spin off from that that could stay here, because the funding would be there for them. Attracting talent isn’t difficult, but you need money to spend on them. You can’t just suck the brains out of this place and have a good result.”

Correction: an earlier version of this story misidentified the company that hosted the poker game where the pledge was initially signed.

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